State Department Report finds North Korea Policies Encourage Human Trafficking

By Robert R. King

On June 20, 2019, the U.S. Department of State released the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. There is a certain irony that at a time when the President of the United States is trading love letters with Kim Jong-un and barely even mentioning human rights issues in their summit conversations, the State Department is issuing frank, tough, and accurate criticisms of North Korea’s abysmal record of human rights abuses.

The United Nations and the U.S. Government define “trafficking in persons” as recruitment, transportation and/or exploitation of persons by coercion, abduction, or deception for the purposes of sexual exploitation or forced labor and slavery. The State Department trafficking report examines all countries and categorizes them into three “tiers” according to how they are meeting standards to eliminate trafficking. Tier 1 countries are fully meeting minimum standards.  Tier 2 countries do not meet minimum standards, but they are making significant efforts to meet those standards. Tier 3 countries do not meet minimum anti-trafficking standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

The annual Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the U.S. Department of State is required by Congressional mandate in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2001, which has been re-authorized by Congress on several occasions since its original adoption. The legislation created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the Department of State and established the position of Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. After a vacancy of 21 months, John Cotton Richmond was confirmed to that post and sworn in on October 1, 2018. He is a co-founder and director of the Human Trafficking Institute, and previously he was a federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.

The Report is only the most recent example of Congressional legislation that requires the U.S. Government to publicly acknowledge human rights conditions in North Korea.

North Korea’s Record on Trafficking

It comes as no surprise that North Korea is a Tier 3 country—one of only 22 countries in the entire world which are making no significant effort to prevent trafficking of its own citizens.  Unfortunately, in the case of North Korea, some government policies actually encourage trafficking, and in other cases the government is complicit. The report determined that Pyongyang “did not demonstrate any efforts to address human trafficking,” and it “continued state-sponsored human trafficking through forced labor in mass mobilizations of adults and children, in prison camps as part of an established system of political repression, in labor training centers, and through its exportation of forced labor to foreign companies. It used proceeds from state-sponsored forced labor to fund government functions . . . [and] it did not protect potential trafficking victims when they were forcibly repatriated from China or other countries.”

It is worth noting that South Korea, in contrast, is a Tier 1 country which meets standards for the elimination of trafficking. The State Department report noted that Seoul “continued to demonstrate serious and sustained efforts . . . including funding and operating facilities to assist trafficking victims, training government officials to address sex trafficking, and cooperating with foreign law enforcement in the investigation of trafficking cases.”

North Korean Defectors are Frequent Victims of Sex Trafficking

One of the worst instances of trafficking involves North Koreans who seek to escape their homeland to find the freedoms that are not available in the repressive North or to join family members who live elsewhere. Because North Korean officials seek to prevent any unsanctioned departures, escaping is particularly difficult. Furthermore, if individuals are apprehended while trying to leave or are returned to North Korea by the Chinese or another government, they are brutally punished. Some 70 percent of North Korean defectors who have successfully fled to China as the first step in their effort to leave the North are women, and they are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.

There are many stories of defectors who sought and paid for help from “brokers” to flee to China. In far too many cases, their supposed benefactors have turned out to be traffickers. Instead of moving on to find freedom and family reunion, in China they have been sold into loveless marriages, forced into brothels, or pressed into the cybersex industry.

Just a few days ago, CNN reported on some of these victims forced into the cybersex industry in northeast China, one had spent five years and another eight years in cybersex slavery: “For five years, Lee—whose name has been changed for her safety—says she had been imprisoned with a handful of other girls in a tiny apartment in northeast China, after the broker she trusted to plan her escape from North Korea sold her to a cybersex operator. Her captor allowed her to leave the apartment once every six months. Attempts to escape had failed.”

A British human right group, the Korea Future Initiative, just issued an excellent report based on extensive interviews and rehabilitation work with North Korean women who were trafficked while attempting to escape the North.  The report gives this description of the problem: “North Korean women and girls are passed through the hands of traffickers, brokers and criminal organizations before being pulled into China’s sex trade, where they are exploited and used by men until their bodies are depleted.”

Vulnerable North Korean young women are caught up in the growing demand for sexual services in China. South China Morning Post reported that China’s booming economy has “fueled a prostitution boom.” The Korea Future Initiative report says North Korean women are in great demand because of the low price charged for their bodies, which can be as little as $4 for prostitution services and $146 to purchase a wife.” One survivor of exploitation said, “I was deceived by a broker and sold into marriage for ¥5,000 Chinese Yuan ($720 United States Dollars). I spent six years as a slave.”

The report estimates that overall this “complex and interconnected network of criminality accrues an estimated $105,000,000 United States Dollars annually from the sale of female North Korean bodies.”

Chinese Policy Contributes to Sex Trafficking of North Korean Refugees

The 2019 State Department trafficking report highlighted how Chinese policies and treatment of North Korean would-be defectors actually contribute to the trafficking problem of North Korean victims. The Chinese government refuses to recognize North Korean women as refugees and refuses to grant them legal protections.  This makes the refugees more vulnerable to being trafficked.

China simply returns all North Korean refugees to the North Korean government, where they are subjected to harsh imprisonment, forced labor, and all too frequently death. The fear of being returned to North Korea makes these defectors especially vulnerable.  Unscrupulous brokers simply threaten to turn the victims over to Chinese or North Korean authorities, and being sexually trafficked in China appears to be the lesser evil.

China has voluntarily accepted the obligation to act to prevent and protect trafficking under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and also the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. American authorities have called upon the Chinese to safeguard and protect victims of trafficking. Those requests, however, have largely been ignored. The Chinese have been more involved with international efforts to discourage trafficking in Southeast Asia than it has been in dealing with the serious trafficking problems on its northeast border with North Korea.

Forced Labor in North Korea

Forced labor is the other major area of concern with regard to North Korea’s abysmal trafficking record. The 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report identified North Korea as a country that uses forced labor as part of an established system of political repression and a pillar of its economic system.

The recently released Global Slavery Index states that as many as 2.6 million people—1 out of every 10 North Koreans—are victims of forced labor or modern slavery. The report declares that the North Korean government had the “weakest response to slavery” of all countries covered in the survey, and that the Pyongyang government is directly involved in forced labor both inside and outside the country.

The most pervasive practice of forced labor in North Korea is the use of mass mobilizations—forcing large numbers of people to spend long hours on high-profile politically important projects for no payment, working long hours with little sleep, and receiving only limited amounts of poor quality food to sustain them in their efforts.

Reuters reported on one mobilization in January this year. Thousands of North Korean students traveled to remote Mount Paektu in northwestern North Korea to “voluntarily” work on a project dear to Kim Jong-un—to build apartments, hotels, a ski resort and commercial, cultural, and medical facilities in the alpine town of Samjiyon. This site is on the sacred volcanic mountain on the Chinese-North Korean border.

The work on Samjiyon is given heroic attention in the government-controlled media. Young people are urged to dedicate their “boiling blood of youth” to Kim’s dream of a great show-place on the slopes of Mount Paektu. Families are shown on television packing warm winter clothes, tools, boots and such for the inspiring youth who work on the project.

The reality of the mass mobilizations, however, is much grimmer. One young man became a member of one of these work brigades with much fanfare and festivity when he left the orphanage where he spent his youth to become a member of the brigade. The reality was a textbook example of forced labor in violation of international trafficking norms.  He worked long hours with limited amounts of poor quality food, he saw another young man fell to his death because of unsafe working conditions, and fellow laborers injured themselves to escape from the rigorous labor.

Human rights groups estimate that such work brigades include some 400,000 people. The UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea human rights in 2014 estimated that such brigades number 20,000 to 100,000 in each municipality depending on size.  Access to party membership, admission to higher education, and other important benefits in the North are dependent on enthusiastic participation in such un-paid mobilizations. The value of such unpaid labor is estimated to total nearly one billion dollars annually.

In addition to this mass mobilization, forced labor is an integral part of the North Korean prison system. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners are held in segregated prison camps, and in these camps, all prisoners, including children, are subject to forced labor. The UN Commission of Inquiry in 2014 provided details of conditions in these political prison camps where individuals are forced to work long hours in physically demanding jobs while they are given insufficient food, forced to live in unhygienic conditions, and subjected to beatings, torture, and rape. Forced labor is also part of the correction regime for individuals in North Korea for routine crimes. Like the political prisons, regular criminal prisons involve forced labor and extremely poor living and working conditions.

Some North Korean workers are also sent abroad under rigid government control to work on contracts with other governments and companies. Many of these workers face forced labor conditions. Salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government and workers receive only a fraction of the payment for their labor. Working conditions are grim, and workers could also face punishment for failure to meet output quotas or for violating behavior expectations.

A report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China concluded that in the case of China, “The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) reportedly continued to generate revenue by sending DPRK nationals to work in China under conditions that may constitute forced labor.”  Security personnel accompanied the workers going to China and actively monitored them continually. On average the government withheld 70 percent of the workers’ earnings.

Although North Korea is a signatory of United Nations agreements to prevent trafficking and forced labor, the record is quite clear that it has not lived up to its obligations. The just-released 2019 Report on Trafficking in Persons, as well as other recent reports from respected non-government organizations, clearly document North Korea’s human rights violations against its own citizens involving sex trafficking and forced labor.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Picture courtesy of the U.S. Department of State

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